Losing My Religion (April 1, 2011)

Earlier this week, I was able to open up about my impending divorce for the first time. I understand very broadly that I have only begun to process the millions of conflicting emotions and feelings that overtake one, often at the oddest times, when going through a separation from a spouse, even under the best of circumstances. So far, our schism has been the opposite of cordial, which rather reflects the general combative tenor of our five-year relationship. I do not lay the blame for this on Eddie. For whatever reason, we always seem to bring out the worst in each other, and hammering out the financial and logistical details of our split has been no exception.

The last four weeks have been marked by attempts to discuss business like adults, inevitably devolving into a flaring of tempers, finger pointing and tremendously wounded feelings. With two weeks left before I officially relocate, we have worked out most of the details, and while sidestepping each other in our still-shared space, there is little conversation left. We both carry the mien of two PTSD-afflicted soldiers who want to patch ourselves up and go back out to the field, but no longer have the tools or the emotional bandwidth. We’ve lost the ability to comfort each other, because how can the person killing you be the one who saves your life?

In one strained and measured discussion held this week however, Eddie raised a point that I had yet to consider. Born into Lutheranism, I had pretty much rejected all organized religion by the time I reached high school. I flirted with Buddhism in my 20s before finally converting to Hinduism at age 29 as part of the package deal of marriage to my Indian-born mate. I will not go so far as to say I’ve been a devotee, but there is really a lot to appreciate. Though there are rigid, right-wing practitioners (as there are in all religions), at its core, the Hindu religion is quite flexible. If one so chooses, they don’t have to move much farther than two core tenets: do no harm to the living (humans, plants, animals), liberally thank the god(s) and seek their blessings.

In a fit of pique, Eddie suggested that the breach of our partnership invalidates my Hindu “membership,” the argument being that since I converted simply for expediency’s sake (his family would never have accepted the marriage if I hadn’t), deciding to invalidate the union did so with my adopted beliefs by extension.

I mention that this was said during one of many tense discussions, but emotions aside, I had the sense that my estranged husband was fairly serious. But do things work like this? I have a friend, a converted Jew, who made the switch after marrying early in his 20s. The religion stuck even when the wife didn’t, and now in his early 50s, he is one of the most dedicated members of the Jewish faith I have ever encountered. His rights were not “revoked,” so to speak.

But branding and permissions aside, I find myself wondering what my admiration of the Hindu faith means without Eddie and the rest of his family. His mother has spent a lot of time over the years educating me about mythology, the holiday calendar and the auspicious meanings behind it, rituals, etc. I have gone to mandir (temple) on my own numerous times, a practice that often bring me a lot of peace, but I realize that in the past, a lot of that peace stemmed from a sense of belonging – not just to the faith, but to a family that pays more than lip service to the teachings.

So what do I do with all of this knowledge and experience now? Why do I feel like I am not wanted and no longer have the right to practice, though I stood up in front of literally thousands of people in a foreign country to swear my allegiance? And mind you, I don’t go around doing that sort of thing regularly. I realize that my religious quandry is part of a larger and troubling question of trying to figure out where (if anywhere) I actually belong, odd and broken bird that I am.



My Christmas Traditions (December 22, 2010)

A few days ago, my Aunt Diane, a woman who has been like a mother to my sister and I, sought to clarify my positions on holiday celebrations. While she rejoices in the diversity of our extended family, she wanted to be sure that Jen and I were not feeling left out of any of the seasonal fun. She is well aware that I was born and raised as a Lutheran. For nine years, I did the whole parochial grade school pilgrimage: learning how to recite the books of the Old Testament in order (a skill I only display now as a cocktail party parlor trick), memorizing Bible verses, and making my formal confirmation at age 13, as an 8th grade student.

However, less than a year after my confirmation, the Christian God and I had a falling out. Or rather I should say, I had my own scientific/spiritual awakening. While I always understood intuitively that the Bible should not be taken literally, I was really hung up on the Jesus arc. I believed he existed, owned that he was a charismatic man, and that his crucifixion was a great tragedy. But son of God? Nah – I think I was with the Jews on that one. For that matter, over time, I began to question the existence of the Big Guy himself.

In 2007, I converted to Hinduism as part of the marriage rituals I underwent with my husband Eddie. I studied up as much as I could before we walked down the aisle (or pranced around the fire), and while there is much to like about the religion’s basic tenets of hard work and refraining from harm to living creatures, I couldn’t quite get behind the Hindu god/goddess hierarchy. Like Greek or Roman mythology, the characters made for a great study, but I was never able to accept them as real entities who had an effect on my day to day life. This is a source of real disappointment to my in-laws, but they appreciate my participation in various rites nonetheless.

For the last nine years, my sister Jen and I have formed our own loosely dogmatic Christian-Muslim-Hindu coalition. Jen is married to a wonderful man with a strong Islamic faith, and though she herself never converted, the religion is a big part of her daily family life. Thus I have had my own opportunities for exposure and learning.

All of this background cements my Aunt’s need to figure out how exactly I celebrate Christmas. What does it mean for me personally, as a religious skeptic? Though I was born Lutheran, converted to Hinduism, and once considered myself an agnostic, the latter classification was really just a waffle on my part. The truth is that I am much closer as a an adult to atheism, but was afraid to say it out loud, on the off chance that my Lord actually did exist and would condemn me to the flames of Hell for non-belief. Also, I hate the word “atheist.” It sounds so evil. If George Carlin were alive, I ask for his help in devoting a softer, more PC term for my group, something like “the godly challenged.”

But for an increasing number of American families, Christmas is about much more than celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, and my clan is no different. In my living room right now sits a small, sparkling, real live Christmas tree. This tree is bedecked with lights and a big, red glittery star – selected and setup by my firmly Hindu better half as an afternoon surprise for me. On Saturday morning, we will attend a traditional holiday mass at a church near our home – again at Eddie’s request. He has been watching all sorts of Jesus-themed shows on the History Channel the last two weeks and wants to view the Western rites up close. While this plan stems from intellectual curiosity more than devotion, we are still choosing to participate.

In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am not one of the godless who feels superior to others, one of the smug who cosmically “gets it.” In fact the opposite is true. I often feel wistfully left out, wishing with all my might that I could believe in something, anything. I spend a fair amount of my waking life tearing myself apart with questions, regret and sorrow (another family Christmas tradition). But then I look at my mother-in-law, a woman who sleeps well at night believing that her fate and everything associated with it “is in God’s hands,” and I feel jealous. I am not cynical about religion. Yes, it has been used for evil purposes throughout history, manipulated by the powerful to screw the meek, but aside from that, on an individual level, religious faith is a beautiful thing, from what I can see, a real source of comfort to those who genuinely accept.

I yearn to be part of that club, but somehow my dubious psyche can’t take the leap. I want there to more than simple ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I want to believe that there is something beyond this complicated, painful life but everytime I think it out, I come up short.

My Aunt, like my mother-in-law, wishes this were not so. She asked abut my positions then because she empathizes with the emptiness she thinks I must necessarily experience at this time of year, as one who sits outside the circle. But as I explained to her, all metaphysical questioning aside, I do feel a part of the season. The end of a calendar year, and the celebrations that come along with it, are an opportunity to count your blessings and reflect, to clear away the exhaustion of another annum and prepare to start fresh. I am so down with that. Ditto the gift giving, family togetherness and the overeating that goes with it. I adore the cartoon Christmas specials (stop motion Rudolph! Linus’ parable of the modest Christmas tree!), the first snowfall (though I wish it could also be the last) and the caroling. Not having a religion doesn’t mean I am immune to joy.

It’s a wonderful life. I just haven’t located an explanation for it yet that works for me. Looking for one is my own Christmas ritual.